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8th Circuit backs Ark. inmate's religious-freedom claim

By The Associated Press
10.03.08

NASHVILLE, Ark. — A judge erred in dismissing an Arkansas prisoner's complaint that Howard County jail officials discriminated against him when they punished him for refusing to work on a day he considered the Sabbath, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis yesterday sent Levester Gillard's First Amendment claim back to the lower court with orders to award Gillard "appropriate relief."

"We conclude the district court erred in determining that requiring Gillard to mop and sweep his cell on Saturdays did not substantially burden his sincerely held religious belief," the panel said in its ruling in Gillard v. Kuykendall.

Gillard, who is currently in state prison serving life sentences for rape convictions out of Howard and Garland counties, complained that when he was in the Howard County jail in 2004, he was unable to practice his religion without being punished.

According to the appeals court opinion, Gillard testified during a trial on his lawsuit that as a member of the New Testament House of Prayer, he believed the Sabbath fell on Saturday and that he was to refrain from working from 6 p.m. Friday until 6 p.m. Saturday. Gillard estimated he was punished on more than 20 occasions for refusing to clean his cell during those Sabbath hours on Saturdays.

The Howard County jail had a policy that inmates were to clean their cells before breakfast, work that included sweeping, mopping and emptying the trash. When an inmate refused, jail officials would withhold telephone and television privileges. In addition, a jailer testified that Gillard collected juice bottles under his bed, causing an ant problem.

While the appeals panel upheld the lower court's dismissal of other claims Gillard argued, the panel said Howard County officials did not present any evidence that allowing Gillard to clean before or after the Sabbath hours would burden the jail operation or staff. Also, the panel said, county officials did not show how allowing Gillard to clean at another hour would compromise jail sanitation.


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